BY DAN MCGRAW
One of the understated rewards of living in Charleston is finding the pockets of subculture that you never knew existed. Remember when your neighbor told you she was an ultramarathoner? Or when you found out that guy from HR owns a food truck? Charleston is full of niche groups and cult-like followings for interests that run the social gamut. Soccer culture in the Lowcountry is no different. If you look hard enough, you will find a solid group of like-minded people to share in your club’s glory. Or misery.
Enter Charsenal, the local fan group for London-based Arsenal FC. Chartered in 2011 as an official subsidiary of Arsenal America, Charsenal is one of the largest and most organized EPL fan groups in Charleston. It is a distinction borne by the fact the group’s founders have a Blues Brothers-like devotion to expanding Arsenal fandom in America.
As a newlywed and busy graduate student, creating a robust and active Arsenal fan club out of the ether in Charleston was not at the top of Travis Poole’s priorities. However, Travis’ honeymoon proved to be a formative experience in more ways than one. On a stop in London after backpacking through Europe, Travis and his new wife went to Emirates Stadium for their first live Premier League game. The event would leave a lasting impression.
“That changed everything for me,” says Travis. “I knew that I wanted to bring that atmosphere back home.” Upon his return to Charleston, he set out to corral the city’s scattered Arsenal followers into one unified entity. Travis’ friend and fellow Gooner Daniel Brock had the perfect name for their new coalition. Charsenal was born.
According to Travis, the club’s ethos is simple: “The goal is to get every Arsenal fan in this town together – and anyone who ever travels to Charleston who is an Arsenal fan, as well.” So far, the club has enjoyed success through its social media and web presence. Stan Sulkowski, Charsenal’s de facto PR man, has designed an elegant website and also manages the group’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. At the time of this writing, the Charsenal Facebook page as garnered 120 likes and has been growing steadily since its conception. Hopefully, this is only the beginning.
The group has some lofty long-term goals, but feels confident in its ability to achieve them. The current stage of development involves building a large nucleus of members that consistently turn out for matches. The marketing approach is a combination of word-of-mouth and social media strategies. Travis and Stan say the next step will be fundraising efforts through membership dues and tee shirt sales. The revenue generated will go towards web development costs, Arsenal America dues, and social events for the club.
For motivation, Charsenal looks to the success of other Arsenal America chapters.
“San Francisco is doing it right,” Poole said. “New York and D.C., too. Boston…Boston is like the Yoda of Arsenal America branches.”
Though the hope is to one day be mentioned among the elite nationally, Charsenal is quick to recognize the networking opportunities in the Southeast region. There are Gooner fan groups in Jacksonville, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Raleigh at varied levels of development and pedigree. Expanding communication lines between the regional branches is a short-term initiative that should yield long-term benefits.
Soccer fan groups in the Southeast face challenges that their contemporaries from the Northeast and West Coast simply don’t encounter. Namely, the domination of our collective sports consciousness by college football. The exchange of ideas between soccer fans deep in football country can provide a toehold for groups like Charsenal, as well as carve out a greater soccer constituency in the region.
Arsenal plays their final match of the 2013 campaign on Sunday, May 19th, at Newcastle United. The club is in a three-way battle for third place in Premier League and the automatic berth into next year’s Champions League group-stage that accompanies it. Currently nestled in 4th place, two points behind Chelsea and one point ahead of Tottenham, the final weekend of league play has huge implications for the Gunners.
Charsenal will close out their season by watching the match at Madra Rua in the Park Circle neighborhood of North Charleston – a local favorite among Lowcountry soccer fans. The group splits their time between Madra Rua and Moe’s Crosstown on Rutledge Avenue in downtown Charleston.
Win, lose, or draw on Sunday, the focus of Charsenal will not subside during the off-season. The guys plan on a summer heavy with monitoring player transfers and coaching changes in the Premier League. However, they will also have time to take stock of their own accomplishments here in Charleston. Summer will be a time to reflect on how far Charsenal has come and where it strives to be. The group’s identity is best captured by Gooner and Harry Potter fan Adam Breaux’s response to why he became an Arsenal fan.
“The wand chooses the wizard,” Breaux said. “I didn’t choose Arsenal. Arsenal chose me.”